Home on the Ranges

 

GO AUSTRALIA: Hours from anywhere, in the middle of South Australia’s biggest mountain chain, you can get a taste of life on a sheep ranch – all 500sq km of it, writes RACHEL COLLINS

‘LET’S POP next door for a drink with the neighbours,” my host Di Fargher suggests as we stand at the front door of her home, Angorichina Station, in deepest South Australia. “Sure,” I reply, walking towards the gate. “You might want to climb into the Jeep,” Di calls after me. “Next door is a 30-minute drive away.”

I shouldn’t be surprised at this news; it took more than six hours to drive to Angorichina from Adelaide, the capital of South Australia. The station, a large sheep farm, nestles in the Flinders Ranges, the largest mountain chain in the state. It stretches more than 400km from south to north into desert leading to Lake Eyre which, on the rare occasion when there is enough water to fill it, is Australia’s largest lake.

Angorichina, which covers more than 500sq km, has been in the Fargher family for four generations. Di’s husband, Ian, runs the farm while she takes care of guests and cooks excellent meals in their farm stay at the family homestead, which dates back to the 1860s.

Farm stays are a perfect way to get a glimpse of life in this part of Australia. As you’re welcomed into family homes, you get a real feel for the history of the region, the people who live here and a taste of the tough-but-friendly outback life. I am sleeping in the old schoolroom next to the main house. In years gone by, the children of the station owners and labourers were educated here, before the invention of School of the Air, which teaches kids by radio, or they go to boarding school.

At Angorichina you can muck in with daily life on the station, where the original wooden shearing shed and stone shearers’ quarters are still in use; in season you’ll experience all the mustering and sheep-shearing in action. You can take four-wheel-drive tours of the property (which is so steep and tricky to navigate in parts that it’s often used in TV adverts to demonstrate the abilities of a leading brand of 4WD vehicle).

Ian gives guided walks of this part of the Flinders Ranges, with its rich Aboriginal history and some of the oldest fossils on Earth. The station is teeming with wildlife, including emus, kangaroos, countless euros – not wads of European cash but a smaller cousin of the kangaroo – and rare yellow-footed rock wallabies, which are smaller again than euros. Ian’s love of the land and strong connection to the place make the tours fascinating.

The property is so large that, as a young man, Ian trained as a pilot so he could help with the sheep muster from the skies. Today, guests can take advantage of this, as he brings them on scenic flights over the Flinders in his tiny four-seater Cessna.

The Flinders Ranges are arguably best seen from the air. An undulating range of folds and creases in Earth’s crust, they look like layers of cake, carelessly squashed together by giants. Dating back 800 million years, some of the world’s earliest fossils have been discovered in the ranges, and as we soar above the untouched and uninhabited prehistoric ridges and valleys I realise that nothing has changed here for millions of years. (I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t secretly hoping to spot a stray raptor or some other surviving dinosaur down below).

The jewel in the Flinders’ crown is Wilpena Pound, a natural amphitheatre 17km long and 7km wide, with rims rising to 800m. It is the location of many significant Aboriginal rituals; Dreamtime stories tell of its creation by huge serpents. In Adelaide, locals tell me it’s a mark from God punching the earth. Whatever you believe in, it’s easy to see why people attach such significance to the site: cut off from the world, the area has a sparse, mystical beauty.

You can still see the ill-fated attempts by early settlers to farm inside the pound in the late 1800s. Some small clearings are all that is left of their fruitless efforts to grow wheat here. Today, it is a popular tourist destination: there’s a resort just outside the pound where you can camp or stay in chalet-style accommodation. Bushwalking, climbing and mountain biking draw tourists from all over the world; those who manage to climb the inhospitable St Mary Peak, the highest of the pound’s summits, return with pride to the campfires back at base.

TO THE WEST of Wilpena Pound, a 90-minute drive from Angorichina through dramatic winding gorges, lies Nilpena Station, another working farm, owned by Ian Fargher’s brother Ross (who is, coincidentally, married to Di’s sister Jane; good men are hard to find in the outback, the sisters claim).

The Nilpena Farghers offer similar farm-stay packages to those at Angorichina, although their land is more rolling red dunes than craggy peaks. The barren sands surrounding the homestead were used as a set for the 2002 film Rabbit-Proof Fence, which told the story of three Aboriginal girls’ trek across Western Australia in the 1930s: the remote station is the perfect representation of outback isolation.

Again, the land is steeped in Aboriginal history: a drive on to the hills with Ross throws up finds of Aboriginal flint heads and stones used for grinding grains, just lying in the sand. We go to watch the sunset from the dunes, which turns out to be a surprising light show. All of a sudden the sands turn pink, the sky turns purple, the scrub turns blue and you find yourself in the middle of a living rainbow. As you stand on the dunes, you can view the Flinders Ranges to the east as far as the eye can see, and the haze over Lake Torrens, a dry salt lake, to the west; to the north and south there is only the stretch of the horizon.

About 40km down the road from the station – a hop, skip and jump in outback terms, seeing as we’re now seven hours’ drive from Adelaide – lies Ross and Jane’s Prairie Hotel, in the town of Parachilna, population seven (or nine, depending on who’s working at the hotel).

The decades-long drought has made farming a tricky business, so when the Farghers had the opportunity to buy the “local” pub, in 1994, they jumped at the chance. In the years since, Jane has transformed the place into a bustling oasis in the desert. The original building now houses the bar and restaurant, with newer energy-efficient rooms out the back that are partially sunken into the ground to keep cool in summer and warm in winter. The decor is traditional outback with glamorous touches for the diverse mix of guests.

We are visiting just after Easter, when more than 500 people turn up for lunch. Where these people materialise from, I’m not sure, but the food is definitely worth travelling for – not least the signature “feral mixed grill”.

As we sit down to dinner I’m feeling a bit nervous about the prospect of eating the local delicacies of camel sausage, grilled kangaroo and emu filet mignon – but the decision is quickly taken out of my hands. “Oh, you’ll love it,” says my guide, Kent. “You have to eat it: it’s famous,” says the waitress. “You’ve no choice: that’s what I’m making you,” says the chef. I’m hungry and outnumbered: it’s the feral mixed grill for me, so. As it turns out, it is excellent, especially the emu – even if the cocktail-stick flags sticking out of each piece of meat, with cartoons of the animals I’m eating, are a bit odd.

The atmosphere at the Prairie is typical of the outback: warm and welcoming, jovial and relaxed. Travellers from all over the world and a few locals converge outside on the veranda after dinner for a chat and a gander at the stars. The nightly entertainment of watching the passing coal train, which takes a whole five minutes to trundle past the hotel, gives the local wags the opportunity to crack jokes about the futility of bringing coal from the mines in the north to the power station at Port Augusta, in the south, where it will be turned into electricity and sent back north . . . to power the coal mines. The jokes and stories continue long into the night. We may be miles from everywhere, but you couldn’t feel more at home.

RACHEL COLLINSwas a guest of Tourism Australia and Qantas

Flinders Ranges

Where to stay

Angorichina Station, Blinman, South Australia, 00-61-8-83544405, angorichinastation.com. Understated outback luxury (yes, there’s such a thing) with excellent hosts and fantastic food.

You’ll be welcomed as part of the family – we ended up being invited to a birthday party – but your hosts are unintrusive, and you’re free to roam about as you choose. Lots to do: 4WD tours, flights, the sheep station. A treat. Prices from $695 per person (€515pp) sharing a double. Only room for six people, so a very intimate getaway.

Prairie Hotel, Parachilna, South Australia, 00-61-8- 86484844, prairiehotel.com.au. With 12 luxury rooms in this heritage building and overflow self-catering cabins and rooms across the road, the Prairie is a perfect stop on your tour of the Flinders Ranges. Just half an hour from the stunning Parachilna and Brachina Gorges, it has excellent food and the bar is the only place to be – literally – come nightfall. Worth the trip for the sunsets alone. Deluxe rooms from $195 (€145). Self-catering bunks in shared rooms from $55 per person (€42pp).

Wilpena Pound Resort, Via Hawker, South Australia, 00-61-8-86480004, wilpenapound.com.au. For the authentic outback experience, try camping at this resort, comprising 46 powered pitches and open bush camping areas. There are campfire pits and barbecues, a shop, laundry, petrol station and excellent information centre that provides maps and advice and can help you plan your activities. There are 60 resort rooms and cabins, with accompanying restaurant and bar, if you’d rather not sleep under the stars.

Prices start at $12 (€9) for an unpowered pitch; permanent tents without linen cost from $75 (€55) a night.

Where to eat

North Star Hotel, Nott Street, Melrose, 00-61-8-86662110, northstarhotel.com.au. It’s a long drive north from Adelaide to the Flinders Ranges, and the North Star is a perfect halfway point.

A quirky hotel in a historic town (you can even sleep in some great house trucks out the back), it has an excellent restaurant and is home to the local Bundaleer Wines. There’s a strong emphasis on local produce – oils, olives, honey, fruit and meats are all sourced in the area – and an inventive chef and knowledgable staff. Try the Golden North Ice Cream made down the road in Laura: there’s a reason it’s famous all over Australia.

Prairie Hotel, details as above. The Prairie has brought cosmopolitan dining to the middle of nowhere without losing the charm and warmth of its outback roots. The menu, which has a strong emphasis on South Australian and bush food, changes almost daily, and although the feral mixed grill (below) is a firm favourite, there are lots of less scary options. The lengthy wine list makes the most of the state’s wine regions of the Clare and Barossa valleys and Coonawarra.

Picnic.There’s no point coming to the outback if you’re not going to pull on your hiking boots and head for the hills. With so many gorges, bush walks and trails to explore, you can’t beat a picnic on the bank of one of the many winding creeks. Hotels, guest houses and cafes are all happy to provide picnic baskets to take on your walk. Don’t forget the Esky to keep your beer chilled.

Where to shop

Aboriginal art. South Australia and the Flinders Ranges are steeped in Aboriginal history. Visit Arkaroo Rock to see Dreamtime stories in ochre and charcoal cave art and other Aboriginal paintings and carvings at Chambers Gorge. You can’t bring these particular examples home, of course, but there are countless Aboriginal art shops, especially in Adelaide, where you can buy authentic pieces. (Good luck getting a didgeridoo on the plane, though). See southaustralia.com for gallery and museum information.

Make sure you . . .

Try the local cuisine. Kangaroo burgers may not be your thing, but there are still lots of unusual flavours to try in this part of the world. The Flinders Ranges seem arid, but Aborigines have been living off the land for thousands of years, finding food in the strangest of places. Local leaves and herbs, such as lemon myrtle and samphire, are great in salads; wattle seeds are ground to make tasty breads; bush tomatoes don’t taste like the little red fruit we’re used to, but when dried they add a spicy burst of flavour to soups; buttery macadamia nuts are fantastic as a snack or in chocolate or ice cream. South Australia is championing the little-known sparkling Shiraz and Merlot, a sweet red alternative to regular fizz.

Get there

Qantas flies to Adelaide from Dublin, Shannon and Cork via Frankfurt and London Heathrow. Sale fares start at €1,167 for flights booked by July 12th. See qantas.com/ireland. You’ll need a car to get around the Flinders Ranges – ideally a 4x4 – which you can rent at Adelaide Airport